Spring is in the air and bursting up through the soil
In the past two weeks the weather has finally turned. It rarely gets very cold in Te Korowai-o-Te-Tonga. For example, we never experience anything close to a frost, but in August and September, after enjoying a number of mild days, we were frequently knocked out of our reverie by a harsh wind change, or days of heavy rain. In fact, there was so little sun from June to September, that I was beginning to feel despondent and to wonder if I’d ever be able to weed my precious flower garden. And yes, we’ve had a spell of rainy weather again, but now when the sun escapes from behind the clouds, it’s hot.
This has proved to be very successful, to the extent that our new season’s plants (now planted out) are almost at the point of providing us with vegetables—in fact, we picked our first small zucchinis (Zucchini ‘Costata Romanesco‘) only yesterday; babies, I know, but the plants are bursting with flower buds and fruit.
We’ve had lettuces all through winter and there’s a another crop on its way, thanks to a new scattering of seeds. And as per usual practice, we replanted our regular Egyptian Walking onions (Allium proliferum). They are such an amazing onion. Reliable and useful, and I think they look very attractive with their topknots of little bulbils. Along with the garlic, we managed to get these onions into the soil not too long after the shortest day and they are doing really well.
Home-crystallised ginger is far superior to anything you would buy packaged in a supermarket. And there are a couple of useful byproducts. (1) ginger syrup – you can guess what that’s good for, and (2) you can also consume the water that the ginger was originally simmered in. Ginger, of course, has many health-enhancing properties.
The Birds and the Bees
This Spring we’ve had terrible problems with Kotare flying into one of our bedroom windows. There’s been a pair that likes to sit on the washing line. And when they fly off, they see the trees reflected in the window and fly in a bee-line for it. Bang! So far this year we haven’t had any birds that have knocked themselves out, but it feels like it’s only a matter of time. The photo above shows that we’ve tied some cloths to the line, hoping that the flapping (when it’s windy) will deter the birds, but that hasn’t really worked. We’ve also put masking tape across the window, and so far, this seems to have helped. Fingers crossed.
A pair of Warou, or Welcome Swallows ((Hirundo neoxena), have once again built a nest in the barn – this time it’s the new barn. The photo shows the second nest they built. For some reason they didn’t lay any eggs in the first one, but we peeped into this one with a camera a couple of weeks back and saw four eggs. We don’t wish to go too close now, as the parent birds are sitting, and they get annoyed if we hang around. Sometimes you can see an adult head peeping out from above the nest.
We recently removed the varroa strips from our two hives and I also took the opportunity to check for AFB (American Foul Brood). This involves shaking the bees off all the brood frames, and scrutinising the brood cells. The bees looked healthy and we spotted the lovely Carniolan queen in Hive 01. They’ll be glad to have the honey boxes on top now, as there are many trees and plants in flower at the moment. We were disturbed to discover a herd of tiger slugs slithering up one of the inner walls of hive 03. And Hive 01 looked particularly damp on one edge and had an extended family of woodlice that we had to brush out.
The flower garden is still going strong, but has been somewhat neglected. Mostly because of the inclement weather in winter which meant I couldn’t get out to knock back the weeds in the way I’d liked to have. There are many plants in flower as I write, but most are from last year, or are Aquilegia, Dianthus, Lavenders, Viola, etc., that have self-sown.
I removed all the lovely dahlias we grew from seed a year ago, and have only recently replanted the tubers around the place. This year I grew a different dahlia from seed, and I’m really looking forward to see what colours I end up with. Growing flowers from seed, in particular, is very rewarding, I think. Especially the varieties that could be anything from a range of colours.
Finally, I have to include a photo of our Amaryllis ‘Apple Blossom’. This plant is so beautiful. And she’s tall as well, nearly up to my waist, definitely up to my hips.
“In the Spring, I have counted 136 different kinds of weather inside of 24 hours.” (Mark Twain)
Back on 18 March when I disembarked from my bus at Toyo Hotel, it was still wintry, with snow piled everywhere and people hurrying about their business, not keen to be outside in the chilly air any longer than necessary. After settling in, I’ve tried to keep up with a daily walk, not just for exercise (and to counteract the extra food I’m eating), but also to get a feel for my new surroundings. To begin with there was little sign of spring growth, and I often had to negotiate deep snow and slippery icy footpaths.
Gradually the snow has become less and less and has for the most part completely melted.
First pleasures and small disappointments
What have I most enjoyed so far? Well, being reunited with my daughter, her husband and my two grandchildren after a long and uncertain two and a half years, would have to claim 1st place hands down. But after that I think that it’s just nice to be back. And of course I love the interesting items that can be purchased here, and the varieties of food. And because it’s Spring and I love gardening, it’s especially interesting to see which plants are coming up now that the snow has gone. I can barely keep up as they are they are forcing their way into the light and flowering at a much quicker rate than they would in a New Zealand October.
What I’m disappointed with is the fact that even though I’ve been studying Japanese relatively steadily over the past few months, the things I’ve managed to learn are of little use in real life. My Japanese language is too slow and I lack confidence. My ears aren’t tuned in to the individual syllables and I still haven’t been able to learn katakana well enough. My hiragana is fine, but I’ve realised that you do really need to know katakana equally well if you are to read any of the instructions, menu descriptions and the various signs. I suspect that you can probably manage without Kanji to a certain extent… But as far as actually speaking the language, I’ve found that even the simple phrases that I’m really familiar with, the ones I know well, they just fly out of my head when I have the chance to use them.
A Kiwi in a strange land
Perhaps that heading should rather be, “A strange Kiwi in a new land”. I don’t usually post photos of myself but I think my expression probably captures what I look like when I’m out and about. Or it would if I wasn’t usually wearing a mask. I forgot about that!
My daughter tells me that there are other foreigners here, but so far I haven’t seen a single one in all my walkings around. Small Japanese children look at me sideways and older children, aged about nine or ten, often openly stare. Those locals who are unfortunate enough to have to interact with me, such as customer service staff at the supermarkets, konbini or cafes, are very kind and helpful. And my Japanese extended family are wonderful. Kind, courteous, they have welcomed me with open arms and have truly done everything they can to make me feel part of their family.
Being in a country where no-one speaks your language is a good way to make you think about how you behave yourself, when encountering people with English as a second language. I think that Pakeha New Zealanders can be a bit smug about the whole language thing and be very impatient and intolerant of those who struggle with English.
Last Monday I walked to the end of one of the main roads nearby and came across an interesting flight of stairs leading up to a tree-clad hill.
I was expecting possibly a leafy suburb or a small park and was surprised to discover the Takasu Shinto shrine at the top. In Summer when all the trees are clad in their greenery, it will be very pretty up there.
I was hesitant to venture too far within the enclosed area but later learned that it would have been okay to have gone in to look around the gardens. Instead I walked around the grounds in front of the building but outside the Torii. There were a number of large rocks with inscriptions on them, as well as the trunk of an old tree that had been cared for.
I took a photo of the text written by the remains of the tree as I was curious about it. According to Google Translate, (and we all know that it’s not the ideal translation tool), the words say something like this;
Rising cherry blossoms – An old cherry tree that had fallen from its roots due to a typhoon in September 2001 was repaired by Makoto Sugawara, who visited for prayer in May 2003, using a 50-ton crane. Mr Hitoshi Igarashi, the priest at the time, named it ‘Okiagari Sakura’.
When I first arrived in Asahikawa the nights were very cold, and although my room was well-heated, I was given a Yutanpo, a Japanese hot water bottle. I used this for a week or so, then decided to order a more familiar type online. These days, the most common versions of the Yutanpo are made of hard plastic! Exactly like the one in the photo above, and even though it comes with a soft cotton sleeve, it’s very different from the rubber version I had as a child. Though I suspect it’s also less likely to perish and fall apart in your bed than those old rubber ones were.
I’ve since seen many of the same type for sale in shops and online, but I was glad when my new soft more familiar version arrived in the mail, complete with cuddly hedgehog cover.
The Asahikawa Taisetsu Liner runs twice daily from New Chitose Airport, Sapporo, to Asahikawa, the current fare being 3,800円 (about NZD45). I hadn’t ridden the bus in this direction before; in fact in the past I’ve always taken the Kamui, but the bus is so much easier as I can just step onto it at the airport, rather than take a connecting train trip from the airport to Sapporo’s main railway station.
I had about an hour to fill so I went outside to find the bus stop. It was sunny, clear and cool. Even with the occasional whiff of aviation fuel, the air was invigorating after the time spent in stuffy airports. The outside seats were covered with blue plastic and tied with ropes—a common protective practice during the snowy seasons, so I couldn’t sit down anywhere. The area was, however, brightened by a planter of cheery ornamental brassicas.
I scrutinised the timetable displayed at Bus Stop 21, then wondered if I should be worried, as according to this, there were no buses until after 4.00 pm that afternoon (more than four hours later than my booking). I re-checked the ticket on my phone and all seemed to be in order, so I decided to trust that all would resolve itself, and it did, with the vehicle arriving within five minutes of the scheduled time.
The driver stepped off, referred to a list, and announced my name (much relief felt by me) and told me I could sit wherever I wished. I chose the left side and a seat with a full window. There was only one other passenger, seated right at the back. We were on our way almost immediately.
I sat back and resisted eating my onigiri and choco bun for as long as possible, i.e., for about ten minutes. I’d already drunk the coffee at the airport, while it was still hot. The bus had a conveniently located foot rest, with a reminder to remove shoes before using it. It sped out of Sapporo and into the countryside, smoothly traversing the main highway and only slowing for directional changes and the occasional town.
After eating my food I realised I was too interested in the scenery to doze off. What else could I do but take photos? Hokkaido in early Spring is very different from South Head at any time of year.
Images from the road
I think that something like a train or bus trip is a really good way to adjust from the chaos of air travel in these times of Covid, to the next stage of a journey. Being driven in comfort within a modern, fast, warm vehicle, while being able to gaze out at the changing landscape was the very best way to unwind. The soft thrumming of the engine had an almost meditative effect. And my eyes could rest on the rolling paddocks covered in snow, the occasional signs of life, the the distant hills and mountains, the small towns with their colourful angular buildings, the solitary farm houses, the clear blue of sky and the flashes of dark water.
When the road started climbing and the hills closed in, I knew we were drawing closer to Asahikawa. At this stage the road weaves in and out of two or three tunnels, and I could no longer see the flat plains or the criss-cross of roads in the distance.
I looked at my watch and messaged ahead that we were going to be early! And before I knew it we were through the hills and approaching the outskirts of the city. I put my phone away and felt a complex mixture of warm feelings wash over me.
I found my allocated seat and settled in for the two hour flight. Beside me was a young Japanese woman. We had plenty of space, both being of slight build; I often wonder how uncomfortable it must be for taller and larger travellers. As soon as we were airborne I could feel my attention wilting but managed to stay awake for the safety message, conveyed in both Japanese and English. After that, my eyelids were no match for the drone of the engines.
A Wintry Patchwork
I did wake up at one point over the stretch of ocean that separates Honshu from Hokkaido. I saw steel blue water water, flecked with white caps. Before dozing off again and now over land, I saw tiny snow-coated fields in subtle shades of soft greys and whites, interrupted by the dull bleakness of hills. A flash of sunlight reflected iridescent threads of water and accentuated the jagged charcoal lines of roads. I stretched my weary legs and wiggled my toes, enjoying the sensation of peacefulness, high above the clouds. My nose twitched at the enticing smell of hot coffee.
A smooth landing at Sapporo and there I was with luggage in tow. My only task that of locating the bus stop for my trip to Asahikawa.
With time in hand, I homed in on a pair of vending machines and picked up a hot coffee. Then visited another konbini to collect my next snack. Ah… onigiri and a chocopan! About NZ$5.00 in total.
(If you’re curious about Japanese breads, check this site out! For those of you who learnt French all those years ago at school, you’ll recognise the word ‘pan’ for bread. (French = pain, pronunciation is the same).
In early March, Japan finally opened up its borders to a limited range of international visitors. I was fortunate that one of the categories was, ‘close family member’ which allowed me to at long last make my way back to Asahikawa.
I commenced my return journey on 17 March, which was a full two years since the trip I’d had to cancel in 2020. Prior to my flight I was required to be fully vaccinated, with two shots and a booster, and to take a Covid test within 72 hours of my departure.
You can imagine my trepidation as the day drew closer and I had very real fears that I might contract Omicron somehow in the last few days before my flight. Of course, this was somewhat unlikely as living in the country meant I wasn’t in contact with any potentially contagious people. But I did have to drive to Auckland to the Japanese Consulate to drop off my application papers and NZ passport, and later to collect my VISA, and I also had to undertake the pre-departure saliva test. For my trips I donned a P2 mask, to be on the safe side.
The Air New Zealand International Lounge at Auckland airport was busy, but not crowded. Everyone was wearing masks, except for in the dining area. I couple of guys sat really close to me, one older than me and one younger. It was annoying enough that the one who decided to sit beside me on the bench seat was close enough to almost touch shoulders, but he started coughing and snuffling a lot. And then his fellow-traveler began a long-winded story about a mutual friend (I could hear every word) and began to swear with just about every other word. I moved away and found that all the lying-down type seats were empty! So I was able to settle down in a quiet corner.
If I expected Auckland Airport to be quieter than usual, I wasn’t proven wrong, but even so I wasn’t prepared for the lack of passengers on the flight itself. While I sat and waited to board, I noticed that most of my fellow passengers were Japanese, and that I was most likely one of only three gaijin. I had chosen an aisle seat, but was the only person seated in the entire row.
I was tired. The previous two weeks between when I discovered I could apply for a visa and when I actually held the stamped passport in my hand, had worn me out. It wasn’t just the fear of being turned down, despite all the work that my daughter and her husband had done to get the paperwork sorted, it was the fear that my visa wouldn’t arrive in time, or that I’d get sick, or that something else would change, the rules would change, the troubles in the Ukraine would develop into full scale war, a new mutant of the virus would cause borders to close, that kind of thing. So when I was finally on the aeroplane and was in the air, it was hard to believe that I was actually on my way.
Waiting at the Airport
I was already aware that when I touched down in Japan that afternoon, I’d be required to undertake a Covid test, and that I would have to wait at Narita airport until my results came through. If I tested positive I’d be required to go into quarantine in Tokyo, but if I was negative, I’d be free to travel to Hokkaido, as long as I reached Asahikawa within 48 hours.
I was a little worried about the timing of everything. My flight would land at Narita around 5 pm, but the connecting flight to Sapporo departed from Tokyo’s second airport, Haneda, at 9.30 pm, and I was booked onto the Limousine bus (the shuttle to Haneda) for 6.35 pm. Surely it would all work out. But as soon as I walked off the plane and turned a couple of corners into the arrivals corridor, my heart sank. Ahead were two extremely long rows of single seats. Each seat had a large number attached to the back and the one I was to sit on was numbered ’75’.
For the first hour, not one person on any chair moved forward. It was hot and crowded, I had with me my 23 kg tightly packed suitcase and my 7 kg backpack. There were people around me with children and babies. There were elderly people. There were constant announcements being conveyed through speakers, but I could understand nothing. The time ticked by and when I finally managed to attract the attention of a young staff member, and to explain my predicament, i.e., how likely was it that I’d be able to catch the 6.35 pm shuttle, she apologetically gestured in such a way that I had no doubt that it would be impossible. Little did I know that I wouldn’t be finished with the whole process for another five hours. In that time, the limousine bus, my connecting flight and my hotel in Sapporo had to be cancelled.
Fortunately I was able to connect to the airport wifi and contact my family in Asahikawa, and thanks to them, my flight was changed to one the following day, and I was booked in to the First Cabin hotel at Haneda Airport for the night. For anyone who was reading my blog in 2018, you’ll possibly remember that I stayed there then. I was extremely relieved.
Three Trains Late at Night
At around 10.30 pm I was finally through Customs and baggage control and had ahead of me the task of purchasing tickets for, and negotiating three different trains, to get to Haneda airport before the last train, the Tokyo Monorail, ran its final trip for the night.
My Asahikawa family had sent through been instructions on the route I should take, so I made my way to the railway station, dragging my luggage up and down the escalators. I was particularly grateful to the young woman in the ticket booth for the Skyliner. Despite having very limited English, she gave me clear instructions and walked me to within sight of the exit to the first platform. I was also grateful that after the first leg of my train escapade (Haneda Airport to Nippori Station) that the platform there also had an escalator. I was so weary by this time that if I’d had to somehow lift my large suitcase up a huge flight of stairs, I don’t think I’d have managed it. Not that I can actually lift it far off the ground. Being short, I can only just raise my suitcase high enough to get on and off a train–thank goodness it has wheels!
The triple train trip is something of a blur. And to top it off, when I got to my final stop, Haneda Airport Terminal 1, I went to the wrong side of the carriage and stood there waiting for the door to open, which of course it didn’t. By the time I realised my mistake, and hurriedly turned to the other side, the door shut in my face and we were moving again. Exiting at Terminal 2, all the shops and counters were closed and the airport was completely empty, except for some security personnel wandering around. They kindly showed me the way to the Free Shuttle Bus stand and I was relieved to see that the last bus was scheduled for 12.27 am. I had only eight minutes to wait. And it did arrive. Thank goodness.
Sleep at Last
At Terminal 1, it was much the same. I was met at the bus by a couple of security personnel who escorted me to the hotel. There I was, trundling along, dragging my sodding heavy suitcase, shoulders drooping after five hours of wearing my backpack, hot and sticky. With a tiny pod type room awaiting me. Barely enough room to swing a cat. But when I slid the screen closed, I was just pleased to be somewhere with no-one else. Just me. A clean bed with a puffy duvet. And to be at Haneda, rather than still at Narita, with only the morning’s flight to Sapporo ahead of me in the morning, before I could connect with my midday bus to Asahikawa.
Time has scooted by. I last wrote in June and since then, South Head has experienced days, weeks and months of disappointing weather. Strong winds that have swept branches off trees. Downpours so heavy that gutters have overflowed, whole sections of the garden borders have been submerged, and fragile seedlings have been battered. We’ve had numerous power cuts and the gravel road outside our property has been chewed up by logging and stock trucks, or on the rainless days (I hesitate to use the word ‘sunny’), clouds of dust have drifted onto the solar panels, propelled by any car that takes the slope down past our place a little too fast.
While I can’t do anything about the vehicles going past, November is in the air, and perhaps the weather will finally settle.
The garden, overall
The easterly gales of the past few days have done their dash, allowing the sun to finally slip out from under her korowai of clouds. After lunch today, the temperature climbed from 17 to 24 in the space of 30 minutes. I was intending to study, but instead of once again putting blogging on the back burner, I chose instead to defer my study . 🙂
Of course the gardens don’t care about the miserable weather, they’ve just carried on doing their stuff. In fact everything is horrifically lush, and it’s nearly impossible to keep up with the weeds and the lawn mowing. Nothing holds the natural world back; last time I posted we were still collecting feijoa and now they’re back in bloom for the next season of fruit.
It’s the same with the avocados. We’re still harvesting the crop from last year’s flowering, while alongside them on the tree, the new baby fruit are starting to set. I guess this at least shows we had some windless days. It’s difficult for bees to pollinate flowers when its blowing a gale.
Fruiting cherries don’t do so well this far north, they like a hard frost, but our two struggling trees still manage to produce some blossom. The same can’t be said for limes. The two lime trees are smothered with flowers, despite being afflicted badly by citrus borer. And there’s nothing nicer than seeing the first plump buds on the pear tree.
This year I was determined to raise all our flowers and vegetables from seed. I’ve had some disappointments – baby plants being dug up by blackbirds, or chewed by beetles, slugs and snails. Some have failed to germinate, but I haven’t give up. Some I clearly put out too early, even though we don’t experience frosts this far north. My earliest gherkins, zucchinis and squashes just sat in the ground looking sorry for themselves before finally curling up and dying. But, I’ve had many more successes than disappointments.
Things we can eat
The broad bean plants were only a few centimetres tall in June, but now we’re consuming their crop. I like to nuke the beans into a paste with a little butter and miso. The plants themselves have grown far taller than we expected. The seed packet suggested staking them at one metre, but they’ve kept on growing, and now reach to over two metres. Every time a wind has howled in from a new direction, we’ve had to scurry outside to re-tie them.
Our tomatoes are many. I think I counted 25 out there. The three varieties I chose to sow this year are Black Krim (a delicious heirloom variety), Bloody Butcher (a good all-rounder) and the cherry tomato, Indigo Blue Berries. The first fruits are forming and I can’t wait to have fresh outdoor tomatoes again. Proper tomatoes. Through most of winter I’ve resisted buying store tomatoes as they just aren’t the same. Tomatoes are just about my favourite plant to grow. They’re so easy, and so versatile, and after having lived in Dunedin for 25 years, I still haven’t quite gotten used to growing them outdoors.
Garlic and Egyptian walking onions
It was April when we put down the groundcover on a complete length of the vegetable garden. This activity certainly paid off and the patch is now home for garlic, onions, lettuces and tomatoes. We’ve mulched them with compost a couple of times already, but it’s already difficult to see where it was. Compost mulches will be critical as the days grow warmer. They protect and feed the plants, and keep the moisture down in the soil when the summer sun is doing its best to evaporate it off.
This grapevine has been slow to get established, unlike the white variety that grows rampantly on the northern side of the barn. The grape is Albany Surprise and in my opinion is far superior to the white grape, due to the sweet and spicy flavour of its juicy bunches. The vine is looking really good this year, with numerous clusters of fruit.
Gardens new and gardens relocated
Ben has dug me a brand new garden – a bed for melons. We’ve tried to grow these before and we just put the plants in the back paddock and left them, assuming they’d survive. Well, they didn’t. Or actually, they did, but I think all they produced was a couple of tiny, tiny fruit. This year we have a dedicated bed filled with compost and in sunlight for most of the day. I’ve raised seedlings of rock and watermelon, and am hoping for the best!
The bed is in the middle of the lawn close to the house so we can easily keep an eye on it, but already the sparrows have been in and have tossed the compost around. Fingers crossed the plants will get their roots going and dig in before they, too, are evicted. Only the rock melons are planted for now; I need twice as much space to fit the watermelons in as well.
Another task we achieved since June was to dig up our congested bed of strawberries. We selected a few strong plants, and replanted them beneath the lemon verbena. We’re hoping that they’ll do better there, especially with the netting cover. Usually our strawberries get picked to pieces by the blackbirds who nest in the trees near the vegetable garden.
One of our three hives failed over winter. We lost the queen, and think that she most likely died of natural causes; she was never a strong queen. We weren’t completely surprised, as even before we confirmed the loss, the hive had very little brood. So we cleaned up the hive and surrounding area and last weekend added the honey boxes to the brood boxes.
The two remaining hives are buzzing! And on days like this the bees are out and about collecting pollen and nectar. There are so many plants in flower this time of year that there’s nothing to hold them back. Standing beneath one of the olive trees, earlier today, all I could hear was the satisfying hum of the bees.
Plants of the flowering kind
My new project has been to clean up and tidy the strip of garden alongside the pathway in front of our kitchen window. It has always been a problem due to a nasty weed (a bulb) that I haven’t been able to eliminate. I’ve been trying for years.
Ben became so fed up at the hours I’ve spent in this small area, that he suggested digging out and removing all of the soil, and replacing it with compost and new soil. It was the best thing we could have done.
I love this new garden and even though it’s still early days and there’s not much flowering there yet, I can see it from the kitchen window and it always cheers me up. An amusing extra is that the compost was filled with seeds from the vegetable garden. Lettuces, dill, coriander, even a couple of tomatoes have sprouted. I doubt that the dill can stay there for long, but I might leave a couple.
I’ve planted the majority of my basil seedlings there, as well as pinks, dahlia, zinnias, poppies, bellis, and viola, so it will be a cottage-cum-kitchen garden. I’m looking forward to posting some photos once the seedlings begin to mature.
Despite the shambles in my various flower beds, it’s still lovely to see the spring flowers. Every flower gives me a good feeling.
Whether it’s the poppies I’ve raised from seed, or the blossom on the fruit trees. Each flower is a promise of something… a pure splash of colour, a beautiful aroma, or a juicy piece of fruit.
I thought I should mention our small native garden. This is situated in an area that was just weeds and junk when we first bought the property. It’s got to the stage now that trees self-sow, and our original specimens are reaching up to the sky.
Not bad for less than ten years of growth!
Garden reality and reminiscing
The garden is still untidy and there’s always more to be done. Sometimes it feels that for every step forward, there are two steps backwards. Once the weather begins to warm, which it’s doing now, everything just takes off.
This time last year I was staying at Mt Maunganui with Dad, and regularly visiting Mum in the rest home. While I was there, I was yearning for my garden, so I can’t complain about the work now.
My love of gardening and of having a garden began when I was a small child. In the early years Dad kept a vegetable garden, and we had fruit trees. From Mum I picked up a love of the beauty of flowers and trees. I regret that Dad never made it back to my garden. I’d always imagined a time when he would see out his last few years here, pottering around doing the outside things he liked to do.
On a garden rake
Dad tows me between the rows.
Moist earth, a bird cries.
It’s been windy over the past week or two, with several drenchings of heavy rain. Each morning I wake up to the sound of the noisy sparrows in the totara outside my window, and try to guess what the weather is like outside. I part the curtains and see the early morning trees dark against the bedroom window, the thin first rays of light filtering through. I get up and start thinking about what I have planned for the day.
Despite the inclement and changeable weather, when the sun does appear, it’s unseasonably warm, often reaching 20 or 21 C. And once the clouds peel back, the washed-out blue of an early winter sky reveals the bright sun, scattering a saffron veil over the fields of maize husks, and polishing the freshly-mowed lawns to a luminous lime green.
Last week’s persistent Nor ‘westerly has gone. Such a wind buffets the house, rattling the windows and clattering seed pods and dried leaves onto the corrugated iron roof. It shakes the Gingko by the front gate, causing it to shed its yellow leaves in a spectacular manner; they rise up into the air on a puff of wind, only to be tossed over the wire fence and onto the gravel road beyond.
It’s definitely been time to get the wood burner cranked up and we’re really appreciating the work done over Summer to cut and stack firewood and kindling. Getting the fire to the best temperature can be a challenge… too hot and we have to start peeling off clothing items. This somewhat defeats the purpose.
June! It’s hard to believe that we’re so far through the year. Sometimes I wish that we had the occasional frost, but everything just keeps on growing up here in the ‘winterless north’.
Growth in the ‘vegetable’ garden (or should I say, ‘weed’ birthing unit) has slowed down quite a bit. Of course this is normal with the shorter days and cooler evening temperatures. The recent rain has left the soil too wet to work – thank goodness we are on a hill and it will quickly drain away.
The carrots and slow-bolting coriander sowed towards the end of April, have sprouted. But the same cannot be said for the golden turnips. These members of the Brassica family usually pop up through the soil within a week, but alas, there’s no sign of them. It really perturbs me when this happens to fresh seeds… when not even one germinates. Why would that be? Is there a creature in the soil that really loves turnip seeds and has munched them all up?
The additional broad beans I added to the row alongside the three baby plants have also struck well. This is something I’m really pleased about as there’s nothing nicer than a velvety broad bean puree, blended with a little butter and generously seasoned with freshly-ground black pepper and sea salt. I also love the look of the mature plants with their pretty white flowers with their black ‘eyes’, and the way they attract bumble bees. I noticed clumps of aphids on the tender leaf buds… was happy to wash them off with a stream of water.
I’ve been surprised at the size of the feijoas I’ve seen for sale in the supermarkets. They’re so small!! Ours are almost finished, but there are still a handful falling heavily onto the grass each day. And while we do have small ones, our larger ones weigh about 100 grams and most of our fruit weigh over 70 grams. Our two feijoa trees are so deceptive – in March we peered up into the branches and we really thought that this year was going to be a ‘rest’ year. I guess the fruit were hiding amongst the leaves.
Our two avocado trees are the reason we started with our bees. We had a couple of years of many flowers and no pollinators. Fortunately (thanks to the bees) don’t have that problem now, and while our trees don’t have as many fruit as last year, this a good thing, as the trees are still young.
The fruit on our citrus trees is also ripening well. Ripe limes have been falling, and the first mandarins are definitely ready – I’ve eaten a few. The juvenile navel orange has a handful of fruit, finally. Can’t wait to taste those!
Because I was away for most of last year, and for part of this year, the flower garden is in a bad state. The annual weeds have formed a dense carpet on the bare soil, and the perennials are well-established, BUT, even so, I’ve found some bright and cheerful offerings amongst the jungle.
Ben’s Bromeliad circle brightens up the entrance as you come through the gate. He’s planted them on the stump of a Redwood that used to grow adjacent to the driveway.
And in the corner of the garden that we are letting revert back to native plants, a hibiscus that I’d forgotten about completely, has produced a couple of flowers. We recently cleared away a lot of dead branches and that most annoying noxious weed, ivy, and the increase in light must have been beneficial for this beautiful flower.
The garden is mostly at rest, but the signs of new life are everywhere. I have the feeling that I’ll have to get a wriggle on and get things organised… so much to do, so little time. For starters, the shortest day is traditionally the time to plant garlic, so I’ll have to get those beds ready. There are perennial flowers that really should be dug up and divided. The roses need pruning. And what about writing, when on earth am I going to get on to that?
Dad’s in care, living out his last few weeks, day by day, hour by hour. My focus on gardening is (I’m sure) the way I’m managing the range of thoughts that go through my mind. Dad has always loved the land and growing things. In fact, one of my early memories is of standing on the end of the rake while Dad earthed up the potatoes in the vegetable garden. I remember sun, and the complex smell of the warm soil, that it was fun and I felt happy.
I wrote this on Sunday as I lay in bed, trying not to think about the huge thing that wants to be thought about…
Tonight I feel sad. Dad’s by himself. Tossing and turning even in his dreams under thin covers on a plastic-sheeted bed. His body leaks fluids and his brow is hot. Alone, and maybe lonely. I wonder if he thinks he’s in a hell of some kind.
Mum’s gone on ahead and us kids are in our own beds tonight.
I’m by myself, too, but this time there’s no chance that Dad will come home after dark having walked from Wallaceville Station, to quietly push my bedroom door open, his silhouette shaped by the hall light, to sit on the edge of my bed and wish me goodnight.
Monday of Anzac Weekend is drawing to a close. A three-day weekend, based around April 25th, Anzac commemorates the New Zealand and Australian forces ‘who served and died in all wars, conflicts, and peacekeeping operations’. The first Anzac Day commemorated the Aussies and Kiwis who served in the Gallipoli Campaign in World War I.
The weather has been the best kind of Autumn weather – sunny and calm – the perfect weather for garden and hive work. Because I was away from home for such a long time last year, our vegetable garden has fallen into an abysmal state. Weeds, weeds and more weeds. I was beginning to despair about what to do, where to start.
Last Wednesday I heard a very informative and interesting podcast on RNZ, “The Abundant Garden, Niva and Yotam Kay“, which inspired us to purchase a large piece of weed mat, the aim being to suppress and kill the weeds on a designated section of our vegetable garden. If we leave this in place for an appropriate period of time, all the nasty weeds underneath should, in theory, have died. Goodbye to Convolvulus arvensis and Kikuyu grass, as well as to a myriad of annual weeds.
It’ll be interesting to see what’s underneath (hopefully nothing) when we lift the mat in a few weeks. For now it’s an instant tidy-up of a large section of the garden. I like it very much!
I also had to dig up some Ginger rhizomes. I planted these a couple of years ago, maybe more, and have done nothing more than weed around them, and apply the occasional bucket of compost. Recently, I researched on what you’re supposed to do with these plants and discovered that I should lift them, clean them up, keep some for using in the kitchen, and hold some of the new rhizomes back to plant for the next season. Because they’ve been almost completely neglected, the rhizomes are very small, but I feel optimistic that i can do better next season.
The other minor task I achieved was to clear a small bed and sow three rows of seeds. This patch was a jungle of weeds, mostly Fumitory, Oxalis and Fat Hen. Buried beneath were some sad-looking dwarf butter beans with dried pods. The soil was in really good nick – evidence of the amount of compost we’d applied back when the beans were producing. I cleared it all and sowed slow-bolting Coriander, Golden Turnip and Carrots. I’d had the seeds sitting around since last season so will be curious to see if they’re still viable.
Thank goodness we planted a few Habanero plants in Spring!
April seems to be the most favourable month in South Head/Te Korowai o Te Tonga for harvesting chili. Habanero are our all-time favourite peppers; they are satisfyingly hot, but also have a delicate, floral flavour. Each year I grow as many as I can and either dry them for adding to just about every dish (even my lunch-time rolled oats), or freeze to make Bob’s Habanero Hot Sauce, a recipe I discovered a few years ago, and a family favourite.
Last Winter we ran out of dried chili and it was a very sorry state of affairs. Nothing I can buy from a store is even remotely as good as our own dried chili powder.
As well as garden work, I needed to check our three beehives for American foulbrood disease (AFB), prior to Winter. This is a regular task for which I have undergone training and refresher courses.
The complete eradication of AFB is the aim of the NZ honey industry. Fortunately our hives are clean, but if I’d found AFB in any of them – even in just one frame of one hive, I’d have been legally required to destroy all three hives. Every last bit of them. Hives, bees, frames, the lot!
The bees are looking good for heading into Winter, with plentiful supplies of honey and pollen. We even sighted the queen bee in our first hive – a beautiful Italian lady.
The weekend has ended with some tasks completed but many still written up as ‘To Do’ on our kitchen whiteboard. I do feel satisfied that we’ve completed some of the long-overdue activities, but there are so many more. I often feel that my gardening practices are ‘all over the place’. That I dart from one job to another and never quite complete anything.
I guess the secret is to enjoy the task at hand – the process of preparing the chili, or checking the bee frames, of sifting the soil or picking out the tiny Oxalis bulbs – and not to worry about what I cannot complete on any given day. Tomorrow is a new day. I’ll have plans for what I wish to achieve, but something will come up and I’ll go off on another tangent. But perhaps this is okay.
It’s been an age since I’ve written anything. In fact, weirdly, it’s been almost exactly a year since my last entry; I just checked the date. 21st April, 2020. Although by the time I post this it’ll no doubt be a day or two later.
The last time I wrote, New Zealand was still in Covid Lockdown – Day 26. I wonder why I stopped writing? It was most likely a simple case of ‘life out of my comfort zone’, overwhelming me. What a year 2020 was!
Dad and I did take our mini road trip – we drove the 160 km south-west to Te Kuiti to visit my uncle (his younger brother) and my aunt (his wife). It was a very pleasant day, sunny and not too hot. Dad wasn’t that well. Back then he was tiring easily; I really thought he didn’t have long to go. He dozed on and off in the front passenger seat, while I enjoyed the unfamiliar, undulating road through the King Country. I’ve always liked road trips.
We’d wanted the visit to be a surprise (a Percival thing) so didn’t call ahead. Well, not exactly. Before we left, I rang up and pretended to ask for someone else, just to be sure they were home. Wrong number. How embarrassing. As we drew into their driveway I saw the curtains twitch, and then my Auntie (who I’d actually never met) came out. She’d guessed who I was. I’ll have to accept that all Percivals look the same.
Sadly, we didn’t manage a trip home to South Head, although I know Dad would’ve loved it. He didn’t want to travel too far afield while Mum was still alive, and by the time she was no longer here, he wasn’t well enough.
My time with Dad at Mount Maunganui lasted until New Year’s Eve 2020. Up until then I’d spent more than 200 days with him, only taking breaks when I had appointments back home, or on one occasion, when he sent me away. It was a strange time for me. I’m not sure what I was thinking back in February 2020 when he first rang me to tell me he was sick. I just had an overwhelming urge to be with him and to take care of him. So I started ringing him every few days, and it seemed to me that he was becoming increasingly unwell. I kept asking if he wanted me to come and stay, and in the end he agreed. I’m not even sure now, that he was aware of saying this. In my mind, I was ready to stay with him until he died, if necessary, and I said this to him several times when we sat in the evenings, chewing the fat.
What I found initially was that he hadn’t been eating well and was struggling with making his own meals. His hearing had gone and although he had fancy new hearing aids, he didn’t know how to put them in. His sight was deteriorating, particularly in one eye. Because of this, he missed many cues, such as expiry dates on food. I can still remember the evening I arrived. He said he’d just made a scrambled egg, and laughingly told me that the first egg he’d broken was black, and the second one was completely dried up and stuck to the inside of the shell, The third one looked okay so he’d cooked it. I looked at the egg carton – the expiry date was 4 months earlier.
Our days settled into a manageable routine. A cleaner came in to wash the floors, shower and toilet on Monday afternoons, so I tended to disappear when she arrived – I could usually count on an hour’s break and I’d often drive to Bayfair. Living in a town with a mall was a novelty, especially at first.
Each day I’d prepare or cook Dad’s lunch and dinner. Breakfast was under control. For his whole life, he’s eaten four Weet-bix softened with boiling water and finished off with milk and sugar, accompanied by a cup of instant coffee. For lunch I’d usually make tuna or ham sandwiches, or a cup of instant tomato soup and lavishly buttered toast, or something leftover from the previous night’s meal. Dad had his TV programmes he liked to watch (WWE, in particular) and I had my computer upstairs in my room.
I tried to be disciplined and walk for at least 40 minutes each day. At least twice a week, I’d head down to see Mum at her residential home. There she’d be, in her wheelchair, only able to use her left side, doing her crosswords or watching a game show on TV. I think it drove her crazy with boredom. We’d pack away the goodies I’d brought and talk for a bit. Dad was often too tired to go and see Mum, and all Mum wanted was for Dad to visit, so it was difficult. The day she died, February 7th, was their 68th Wedding Anniversary. I usually went away from Mum’s, feeling despondent. How cruel to have a stroke and to be paralysed completely down one side.
As the weeks and then the months went by, I began to get weary. I’d started out so enthusiastically, so filled with purpose and energy. But it’s difficult living with an old dude in his 90s, especially one as independent as my Dad. He still wanted to do everything he’d always done. Take out the rubbish, prune the shrubs, visit the supermarket, pay his own bills, make his own bed, dry the dishes , ride his e-bike. He wanted to maintain his independence and he fought for this. And when I first arrived, Dad actually got better. Initially he was tired and frail, but the regular wholesome meals began to put flesh on his bones, and I think it was a revelation to discover that he didn’t have to iron all his clothes any more. I just folded them and there was NO WAY I was going to iron anything.
About 3/4 through 2020, Dad’s health started to decline again. For starters, he couldn’t ever just relax, he always had to have a project. I spent hours with him trying to fix his stove top, with the damn thing still turned on and Dad blindly waving around a screwdriver near the live wires. I had to help him re-hang a door in the living room, and use his drill press to mend something else that he was working on. There were electrical gadgets in pieces on many of the available surfaces and he did repair them. He was always dismantling his mobility scooter and fine-tuning something or other. And he had his own ways, his own rules… such as not putting out the glass recycling bin unless it was full, and not putting it out if even one bottle was higher than the rim. Not showering until the evening. Putting the mats ‘just so’. Picking up any dot of lint or fluff from the carpet. Turning the internet off at night (to name but a few). I didn’t mind adhering to those things. His house, his rules.
Then around November, he gave himself a hernia by insisting on lifting something that was way too heavy, even for me. This had a huge impact on what he could and couldn’t do.
Meanwhile, I was totally exhausted and my sleep was almost non-existent. I was useful for Dad, could negotiate the trials and tribulations of phone banking when there’s no longer a local bank, no longer cheques. I could sift through the sandy soil of his garden and try to plant flowers that wouldn’t thrive. I could help him sort through his recycling and make small talk with the nurses from the hospice who’d visit occasionally to check on how he was. I could whip up any amount of tender meat casseroles and overcook the broccoli and the cauliflower, reduce the silver beet to a pulp. I was excellent at whipping potato and at serving dinner right on 6 pm, every night without fail, but I just ran out of ‘oomph’. It was time to leave Dad and return home. Task unfulfilled. Job incomplete.
Just today Dad moved into a residential home. That plan I had of caring for him until he died, was a naïve one. It may have been devised with the best of intentions, but was completely unrealistic. If nothing else, 2020 has taught me a hard lesson.
New Zealand’s total number of Covid-19 cases has now reached 1440, with 9 new cases in the past twenty-four hours. The end of our Level 4 lock-down had been penciled-in for midnight this coming Wednesday. Instead it’s been pushed back until midnight on the following Monday – a week from tonight. And even that could change.
Time under lockdown conditions has certainly rattled on by, although I’m not sure why I chose that particular verb, as not much has been rattling hereabouts. To say that it’s been very quiet would be an understatement. But life has changed, despite this. For starters, the days have grown shorter, as New Zealand has gone off daylight savings, which means the mornings are a little lighter, and the evenings noticeably darker. And I’m starting to discern that my father’s days are also beginning to contract.
The same questions run through my mind. How to measure the precious remaining moments? How to support without being over-bearing? How to help without being intrusive? A month ago I didn’t really understand what was at stake. I worried that he’d wear himself out working on one of his projects in the garage, or digging rubble in the garden… but now… now that he can no longer do those things, I wish that he still could, and that I’d rejoiced about it instead of fretting.
I heard on TV today that it takes a certain number of days – 66, I think – for a person to grow accustomed to a new routine. But I’ve already grown into the strange unhurried ways of this new existence. This slowing down.
I burn the midnight oil writing or studying, and sleep late in the mornings. I spend my days doing the chores, making up parcels for Mum, walking, thinking, and hanging out with Dad. He and I laugh a lot, but also share sad moments, especially when one of his poignant memories bubbles up to the surface. Sometimes it all makes sense, and at others, it makes no sense at all.
We’d really like to take a mini road trip together. To head up home to South Head for a couple of nights. I’m still hoping that this can happen.
Dried leaves of Autumn
lie scattered by the roses.